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John P. Calvert, Fargo, Published June 22 2013

Commentary: Kill reform with attack on reformer

Hamid Shirvani, North Dakota’s chancellor of higher education, was fired after attempting a reform agenda that, according to his critics, was linked to an imperious leadership style and a disregard for rules requiring open meetings.

How much of this was camouflage is hard to say, since reformers, by definition, are threats to those rooted in the status quo; if it’s impolitic to condemn reform, then condemning the reformer may get the same result. Hence, a casual lunch-and-cocktails gathering can be portrayed as a sinister evasion of open meeting laws.

Of course, it depends on what you mean by reform. Former North Dakota State University President Joseph Chapman was also accused of bullying by subordinates – after he was safely gone. Outside the campus though, no one much cared because Chapman’s idea of reform was growth – sheer, raw growth – and in these parts growth is widely believed to be the highest aim of the human race. No one knows why. But because Chapman made NDSU bigger, all the local boosters, including The Forum, proclaimed him the greatest man since St. Paul. If bullying gets you what you want, then bullying is quite OK.

But if educational reform means you want to make students smarter, then you’re playing with fire. Now you’re talking about rejecting hordes of unqualified applicants, reversing grade inflation, requiring a substantive core curriculum and so on. Such proposals instill dread because the campuses are not just places of education; they are also places of employment; and when reform threatens jobs, internal opposition is certain.

One of Shirvani’s proposals would have raised admissions standards, at least at the two flagship campuses where whole departments would have faced devastation. Teacher-training programs, for instance. They draw their majors mostly from the bottom half of college-bound high school graduates who enter with the lowest ACT scores and then, miraculously, graduate with the highest GPAs. Currently, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant wants to refuse admission to any applicants with ACT scores below 21; and horrified ed schools have warned him that even so modest a rise would cut their enrollments – and perhaps their facilities – by half.

Standards would prove toxic to many other feeble departments, including the various “studies” programs where students’ qualifications are evaluated not by academic promise but by their status as oppressed persons. Across the campuses, hundreds of Mickey Mouse courses exist only to attract substandard students bearing tuition.

Another reform, long overdue, is Shirvani’s proposal for a feedback system between the colleges and high schools. The latter blissfully delude themselves that their college-bound graduates are well-prepared for college; yet every college professor knows that most are not. Blunt talk might burst this fantasy and spur some needed soul-searching in the public schools. Yet this too would disrupt entrenched practices, damage reputations and inspire resistance.

Shirvani also proposed a three-layered campus system, with the University of North Dakota and NDSU at the top, four four-year colleges in the middle and the community colleges at the base. Clarifying missions is a good idea, but even this is resisted by those fearing a loss of status. The Minot Daily News has complained that Minot State would be “lumped into a tier” with the likes of Dickinson, Valley City and Mayville and be unable to “attract top-notch students.”

So, the state will spend close to a million bucks to buy off Shirvani, which means that we won’t have to worry about reform for the foreseeable future. The buyout puts a sign in the window that says: “Help wanted – no reformers need apply.” Henceforth, applicants will play it safe: They’ll praise the “excellence” of the status quo and resume rhapsodizing about the wonders of growth.

But let’s not just blame the educational establishment. Something deeper is wrong, and that is the culture’s indifference to education and its contentment with mediocrity.

We should thank Dr. Shirvani for having challenged that contentment. And we should take a long soulful look in the mirror.


Calvert, a retired university teacher, is an occasional contributor to The Forum’s opinion/commentary pages. Email Johnpcalvert@aol.com